UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet has condemned death threats made against Congolese Nobel Prize laureate Dr. Denis Mukwege and called for his protection.
Dr. Mukwege is best known for helping thousands of women victims of sexual violence in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
For decades, he has also called for perpetrators to be brought to justice and advocated against the use of rape as a weapon of war. He survived an assassination attempt at his home in 2012.
Surge in threats
In Geneva, spokesperson for the UN rights chief, Rupert Colville, said that the recent surge of threats against him had been conveyed via social media and in phone calls to him and his family.
These were likely connected with Dr. Mukwege’s condemnation of rights abuses linked to longstanding violence in the highlands of South Kivu, where mainly Banyamulenge herders have been involved in conflict against the Babembe, Bafuliru, and Banyindu communities.
This fighting has been characterized by the involvement of multiple armed groups, “both local and foreign”, Mr. Colville said. “The threats appear to be more linked to his advocacy, you know his very robust positions taken on accountability, on the protection of women, as a result of what he’s seen in decades in hospital,” he said.
“In terms of protection…this is a difficult part of the country, it’s a very, very violent region, so that is part of our call to the authorities that they absolutely make sure they do provide really comprehensive physical protection to Dr. Mukwege and to the rest of his team, so that they can continue their vital work on which so many women depend.”
In a statement, Ms. Bachelet said that Dr. Mukwege’s life “seems to be at serious risk”, before welcoming President Felix Tshisekedi’s public commitment to ensure his security.
‘A true hero’
“Dr. Mukwege is a true hero – determined, courageous and extremely effective,” the UN rights chief insisted. “For years, he helped thousands of gravely injured and traumatized women when there was nobody else to take care of them, and at the same time he did a great deal to publicize their plight and stimulate others to try to grapple with the uncontrolled epidemic of sexual violence in the eastern DRC.”
Ms. Bachelet also called for an effective, prompt, thorough and impartial investigation into the threats made against him.
“It is essential those responsible are brought to justice and that the truth is known, both as a means to protect Dr. Mukwege’s life, but also as a deterrent to others who attack, threaten or intimidate medical workers and human rights defenders who, like him, work for the benefit of the Congolese people, often in exceptionally difficult circumstances,” she maintained.
The UN rights chief also underscored the need for all relevant authorities to condemn the threats.
In order to tackle the problem in the longer term, she urged the Congolese authorities to adopt the draft law on the protection and regulation of the activity of human rights defenders “in a form that is fully consistent with international standards”.
Transitional justice call
Efforts should also be stepped up to prevent further human rights violations and abuses in eastern DRC, Ms. Bachelet continued, with “concrete steps to establish transitional justice processes that grant thousands of victims of successive conflicts their right to justice, truth, and reparations.”
Dr. Mukwege, a surgeon and gynaecologist,was awarded the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize after decades of work at Panzi hospital in Bukavu - which he founded - helping women who’d endured serious sexual abuse.
He was also a firm supporter of a 2010 report by the UN Human Rights Office, OHCHR, which chronicled hundreds of serious human rights violations and abuses in the eastern DRC between 1993 and 2003, in many cases identifying the groups and entities allegedly responsible for perpetrating the crimes.
The UN-led mapping exercise followed the discovery of three mass graves in the eastern part of DR Congo in late 2005. The Office’s final 550-page report contained descriptions of 617 alleged violent incidents in the DRC between March 1993 and June 2003.
Each of the incidents pointed to the possible commission of gross violations of human rights and/or international humanitarian law, the UN human rights office said. Only incidents backed up by at least two independent sources featured in the report. Incidents that could not be corroborated by a separate source were not included in the report, serious as they may have been.